The Sheran of Bamian


Abdul Hai Habibi


This group of kings are most likely remnants of the Hepthalite Kushani era who ruled in Bamian, were followers of Buddhism, and converted to Islam after the Arab conquests.

The word sher, in Persian, means a lion. It is for this reason when Arab historians discussed these local Afghan kings they used the name in the context of a carnivorous animal and Al-Yaqubi, the Arab historian, states that a farmer is a ruler in Bamian who is called an asad (lion in Arabic) and sher in Persian.[1]

However, according to current linguistic research, the words sher and shaar (which will be discussed later) are rooted with shah and shahar, which has been formulated from the old Aryan word, kashtarya (military establishment), meaning king and administrator.[2] Christensen writes: Shahrag and sher have been derived from khashi, khashtara or khashtarya, which in Avesta means a king or ruler of a country.[3]

According to records we have at hand, the oldest Sher of Bamian has been mentioned in the geography of Musa Khurani (died 489 CE), whose Armenian publication took place after 579 CE. This geography provides us the name of a Sher of Bamikan, in Khost of Khorasan.[4] This name, during the early Islamic period, was beside Bamian, in use in other neighboring areas also. The author of Tarekh-e Bukhara, Abu Bakr Mohammad bin Ja’far Narshakhi (899-959 CE), writes that the foundation of the ancient city of Bukhara was laid by Sher Keshwar bin Qara Jurein Beghor.[5] These two words, sher and keshwar, are related to its old root and we will witness later, that the title of Sher, was used by the Safari family of Seistan also.

When Hsuan Tsung, the Chinese traveller, reached Bamian (Fan-yen-na), he witnessed that its  behavior, culture, mode of living, money, and language were similar to those of the people of Takharistan, who were followers of the lesser Buddhist creed. The king of the region was a strict follower of Buddhism and during the religious meeting, which was held every five years, to discuss the structure of the religion, he spent all his money and that of the treasury in the name of Buddhism.[6]

Shaman K’uei-chi, a disciple of Hsuan Tsung, who wrote a biography of his mentor, states that the king of Bamian invited Hsuan Tsung to his palace and treated him with hospitality.[7]

According to Joseph Hackin, director of the French Archeological Mission in Afghanistan in the 1940s, when the Chinese traveller, Houi-Tcheao, returned by way of Si-yu (Kabul) and Fan-yen (Bamian) a Hou (Tajik), ruled over the area with independence, who had a large army of infantry and cavalry.[8] According to archaeologists, in 1930, a painting on a wall in one of the temples in Bamian, was discovered which is now preserved in the Kabul museum. This painting resembles one that has been painted on the wall of the 52 meters tall statue of Buddha in Bamian. The painting depicts a person with royal clothes and crown and is associated with one of the Sheran of Bamian. The crown contains three moons and three spheres. Hackin discovered a coin in Ghazni depicting the same kind of a crown. According to him, this dynasty of Sheran of Bamian, was present in the area from the 5th century CE. Astakhri states that Bamian is half the size of Balkh and this region is linked to the Sher of Bamian.[9]

Al-Yaqubi Ahmad ibn Wazeh, who died after 905 CE, considers Sher to be the ruler of Bamian. The Abbasid caliph, Al-Mehdi in 781 CE, among other states, asked Sher to pay allegiance to him and sent an emissary to Bamian.[10]

Ibn Khardaba bin Abu al-Qasem Abdullah (around 847 CE), among the lands of Khorasan and the East, names the ruler of Bamian as Sher[11] and Abu Raihan al-Biruni (death 1048 CE) mentions the Sher of Bamian in his list of titles.[12] Abu al-Qasem ibn Hawqal, around 976 CE, states that the region of Bamian is associated with the Sher of Bamian.[13]

Old Dari poets were familiar with the title of Sher of Bamian. Minochehri states:

     Foremost among the past and future kings

     Is the brave Sher, the mighty lion.

                                  (Minocheri’s Divan p. 104)

Naser Khusrao Qebadani (death 1088 CE) in one of his poem mentions a Sher of Bamian, which has been distorted by followers of his poetic work, in these words:

     Poised in Bamian is an idol sher

     Sitting in Bashin is a Shar

Here the words Bamian and sher do not have any relevance.[14] Naser Khusrao, who had total command over his poetic rendering, says that local rulers were in power before them. There is an idol in Bamian and a Shar ruled in Bashin (capital of Gharistan).

Abdul Hai Gardezi (around 1048 CE), in his story of Bahram Ghor, mentions a Sherma who married his daughter to Bahram.[15]  This Sherma means a great Sher (ruler). Masudi also talks about this person and consider him to be a ruler of Bamian.[16] But it looks as though Sherma is his title since in Shahnama of Firdawsi and Majmal-al-Tawarekh wa al-Qesas his name is Shangal and Shenklat in Gherar Mulook Alfars of Talabi. But his daughter has been named as Senoz in Majmal which is likely to be a misspelling of Spinod of Firdawsi. He states:

     To him Shangal gave in marriage Spinod

     A beauty resembling a smokeless candle.[17]

Beside the adjective noun ma which has been used with Sher Bamian, the adjective noun bareek has also been used and it is possible that one of the kings of Bamian (Shangal), who was the greater, was called Sherma while the others were known as the bareek (lesser) kings. In later literature they were called mahyan and kahyan as seen in Tarekh Nama Herat of Saifi Herawi. Khwaja Nezam al-Mulk Tusi, the famous Saljok vizier, in the story of Alaptageen states:

“And this ruler of Bamian is the one who is known as Sher Bareek (lesser king).” [18]

From this we know that during the time of Alaptageen there was a ruler in Bamian by the name of Sher Bareek[19] with whom Alaptageen engaged in battle, captured him, and then pardoned him. These events took place around 958 CE and we have a coin minted in the name of Alaptageen in this same year. I am of the belief that Sherma and Sher Bareek, meaning the greater and lesser, are both related to the family of Sheran of Bamian.

Sherma of Masudi and Gardezi or the Shangal of Firdawsi were contemporaries of Bahram Gor bin Yazgard the first, the Sassanid king (1029-1047 CE) and Sher Barkeek, mentioned in Siyasat Nama, lived around 958 CE. Since there is a gap of five centuries between the early and later rulers of Bamian, at least 15 other kings must have ruled in the region. This is correct since during the beginning of the Islamic period Arab historians have mentioned that in Bamian the Sheran were rulers and members of this family converted to Islam after the Islamic conquest of the region.

Al-Yaqubi, after mentioning Sher of Bamian, who in 781 CE, was a contemporary of Al-Mehdi, the Abbasid Caliph, provides us with further information about these rulers and writes:

“The city of Bamian is located between mountains and a farmer is its ruler who is known as asad (lion), which is sher in Persian, who converted to Islam in the presence of Muzahim bin Bastam, during the time of Mansur. Muzahim married his son, Mohammad bin Muzahim to his daughter and when Fazl bin Yahya Barmaki came to Khorasan, he found that the son of Sher Bamian, Hasan, was in Ghorwand (Ghorband) and after subduing him he was sent back to Bamian and gave him the title of his grandfather, Sher Bamian.[20]

Al-Yaqubi further states:

“Fazl bin Yahya bin Khalid bin Barmak became the governor of Khorasan in 793 CE during the time of Rashid. He sent a large force, under the command of Ibrahim bin Jabreel, to Kabul. He also sent the leaders and farmers from Takharistan with this force among whom was Hasan,  Sher of Bamian.” [21]

From this account of Yaqubi we know two personalities from the Sheran of Bamian. First Sher of Bamian, who during the time of Mansur, the Abasaid Caliphate (754--775 CE), embraced Islam and his son, Husain, who lived around 793 CE after the death of his father.

We know from these historical documents, that the dynasty of Sheran of Bamian ended with the domination of Subuktageen’s descendants around 958 CE, since later on we do not see their names in any historical events. As mentioned earlier, Ibn Howqal in 976 CE, considers Bamian to be linked with Sher but there is no mention of a lion in that region.[22]




[1]Al-Baladan, p. 51.

[2]Islamic Encyclopedia, referenced in Iranshahr of Marquat.

[3]The Sasanids, Arabic translation, p. 482.

[4]Tarekh-e Tamadun Islami of Sayed Nafisi, 1/ 320. Tehran 1953.

[5]Tarekh-e Bukhara, Persian translation by Ahmad bin Mohammad Qebadi, p. 6, Tehran 1939.

[6]Si-Yu-Ki, Book One, translated by Beil.

[7]Tarekh-e Afghanistan, 2/ 514.

[8]Asaar-e Etiqa Bamian, p. 86, Kabul.

[9]Al-Masalek wa al-Mamalek, p. 280.

[10]Tarekh-e Yaqubi, 2/ 397.

[11]Al-Masalek wa al-Mamalek, p. 39.

[12]Aasar-al-Baqiya, p. 102.

[13]Surat-al-Aarz, 2/ 449.

[14]Divan of Nasir Khusrao, p. 468.

[15]Zein-al-Akhbar Gardezi, hand written manuscript, Chapter 4, the Sassanid.

[16]Murawaj-al-Dahab, 1/ 222. In which the word has been incorrectly written as shabrama.

[17]Shahnama, 4/ 316.

[18]Sayr-al-Mulook, p. 145, published by Hubert Dork, Tehran 1962.

[19]The name Sher Bareek had become more common and beside, the Sheran of Bamian, it was used by other families too. Taher bin Khalf, the leader of the Seistan Safarids, around 991 CE, was known as Sher Bareek. His name appears in the Appendix of Tajarub-al-Uman, written by the vizier, Mohammad bin Hussain, around 999 CE and in Tarekh-e Helal Sabi (Tajarub al-Umam, p. 195, Cairo 1914). One of the Safari king was also known as Sher Labada around 909 CE, since he wore a red labada (a woolen coat). (Tarekh-e Seistan, p. 284). Before the spread of Islam, the people of Bokhara asked the king of the Turkmen people, Qarajuren Beighor, for help and he sent his son, Sher Keshwar, with a large force to Bukhara (Tarekh-e Bukhara 1-6).

[20]Al-Baladan, p. 51.

[21]Al-Baladan, p. 52.

[22]Adab Journal, 1965, Vol. 1 and 2, p. 39.